One of the most challenging reports published last year for those concerned with performance at work was the MacLeod Review of employee engagement. Coming at a time when many businesses were anxious about their survival it was a rallying cry about the vital importance of securing commitment by employees towards their jobs. As David MacLeod commented, "This is about unleashing the potential of people at work and enabling them to be the best they can be. Whether we are in a downturn or in better economic times, engagement is a key to innovation and competitiveness."

Interestingly enough some commentators were puzzled by the recommendations. Wasn’t it glaringly obvious, they said, that employee engagement was a vital ingredient in any organisation which was trying to maximise its performance?

Well, sometimes even the most obvious truths need to be said and made explicit. After all, not every management team understands the significance of getting their workforce fully onside - or, just as important, how to do it.

Lessons from National Training Awards

What I see each year amongst the winners of the National Training Awards (which UK Skills organises) is that the most successful programmes are those which have clarity of purpose and explicit support from the top. Training is at its best when it has buy-in from middle managers and staff alike and, in most cases, the catalyst for this is a firm endorsement by the chief executive (in whatever form that role may take).

In fact, although the MacLeod report was described as being about ‘employee engagement’ the truth was that it was even more about engagement by the managers with the employees. Effective communications by management and clarity of goals are the indispensable prerequisites for employee engagement. People are not going to invest a lot of themselves into an organisation unless they feel they are valued, appreciated and understood. So how can that be accomplished? I cannot find a better example than what happened at Chesapeake Branded Packaging, one of our 2009 National Training Award winners. Based in Newcastle, Chesapeake provides cardboard packaging for a large number of well-known brands particularly in the foods and confectionary business. Packaging, though, is a highly competitive market and a couple of years ago Chesapeake found itself falling behind. In fact, things became so bad that the business was just ninety days away from closure!

Everyone pulling together

With a crisis imminent the minds of everyone in the company became focused on survival. Despite strike action, management and trades unions came together to try to give it one last chance. The focus for the way forward, they decided, was for everyone in the organisation - from senior manager to the team on the shopfloor - to take part in an NVQ Level 2 Business Improvement Techniques programme which would be planned and delivered by the local Gateshead College.

The goal of this programme was very clear: to "unlock the potential of the workforce" and bring about a cultural change. Central to this objective was the need to improve communications on a two way basis so that management and employees could gain a better understanding of each other’s position and needs.

Initially not everyone was convinced it would work. There was a significant number of sceptics about the programme who believed that "nothing would ever change".

But they did change. The programme proved to be enormously successful. It was well-delivered and it made the employees feel valued. The college staff had got the measure of the situation and as hundreds of employees and managers passed through the programme over a period of months (working together in groups of ten or so) there was a discernible impact on working relations back in the plant. Individuals became genuinely engaged and started to take personal responsibility for clearing up their own areas. Productivity and profitability improved dramatically. A visitor from a key customer, Cadburys, said Chesapeake had become "the best manufacturing site I have ever seen".

So, with the right approach via training and learning, miracles can happen. Employee engagement can be cultivated successfully - indeed, we see it regularly in National Training Award winners. Involvement by strong colleges with antennae well-attuned to the needs of business can perform wonders. I hope many more employers, concerned about employee engagement, will pick up on this message in the year ahead.

The National Training Awards are now open to enter. Please visit for more information.

Simon Bartley is chief executive of UK Skills, which champions learning through competitions and awards

Read other FE News articles by Simon Bartley: 

What employers want from Further Education

Simon Bartley's Christmas FE message from UK Skills

Simon Bartley on the role businesses should play in shaping the skills of young people

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